Geopolitics & Culture

  • Students in Turkey
    Students in Turkey
  • Nancy Kalow and students
    Nancy Kalow and students
  • Ellen McLarney with students in Seville
    Ellen McLarney with students in Seville
  • Students writing Arabic on the board
    Students writing Arabic on the board


This cluster explores a rich and diverse array of cultures, societies, and histories traditionally associated with global divisions of East and West. How have these geopolitical entities been historically constructed and imagined, represented and misrepresented, lived and inhabited? With a specific focus on the Middle East and its interactions with the West, we chart the emergence of global empires and colonialism and how this contributed to shaping conceptions of race, ethnicity, and identity in the modern age. 

How has the relationship between East and West—and between North and South—played out as one of dominance and conflict, oppression and resistance? Each course in the cluster explores this question on a micro level, at the level of people and their ideas. We look closely at specific geographical locales and time periods—in the United States, Europe, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Palestine/Israel, the Levant, and the Gulf—what is broadly known as Western Asia. Some see a “clash of civilizations,” but we explore the productive exchange of ideas through coexistence—and communication—between peoples and cultures.


Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 106FS/ Documentary Studies 106FS/ Arts of the Moving Image 106FS — Documenting the Middle East: Oral History, Identity, and Community (ALP, CZ, CCI, R)

Nancy Kalow

Nancy Kalow, Lecturing Fellow at the Center for Documentary Studies

Students in this course will study the documentary record of the Middle East in photography, film, and oral history. We will begin with studio photography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and conclude with recent community-based, experimental, and student documentary production. How do communities document themselves, and why are social media, politics of representation, and aesthetics important in analyzing documentary research? The class includes a hands-on documentary component. We will learn best practices of documentary work and the nuts-and-bolts of audio recording, interviewing, transcribing, writing field notes, and editing. The documentary approach favors an open-ended and non-invasive interview process, in which interviewees offer deep reflections on their lives, historical events, and community or cultural traditions. Fieldwork from the class will be permanently housed at Duke's Archive of Documentary Arts. No prerequisites.

Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 206FS/International Comparative Studies 116FS/ Religion 206FS/ Medieval and Renaissance Studies 191FS/ Jewish Studies 206FS/ Romance Studies 204FS: Clash of Civilizations: In the Heart of Europe (ALP, CZ)

Ellen McLarney

Ellen McLarney, Director, Duke Middle East Studies Center; Associate Professor, Asian and Middle East Studies

This course explores the early presence of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures in Europe focusing mainly on the Iberian peninsula, what is now known as Spain and Portugal. The Iberian peninsula has been home to many different flourishing strands of civilization that are African, Arab, Berber, Sephardic, Visigothic, Basque, Celtic, and Frankish, among others. When people think of Spain, they often understand it as a bastion of Christian culture, a bulwark that fought off the Moors as foreign invaders and persecuted Muslims and Jews alike during the Inquisition. But the reality is more complicated. Seven centuries of Muslim rule (from 711 to 1492) and the even longer presence of Jewish communities left an indelible mark on not just Christian Spain, but all of Europe and what is known as “Western civilization.” This class disentangles the various cultural strands of these different cultures to explore how they co-existed in both conflict and harmony—what is known as convivencia. The relationship between Christian Europe, the Muslim World, and the Jewish diaspora has largely been understood as a clash of civilizations in the contemporary era. This class looks more carefully at their shared heritage—their art, architecture, music, philosophy, poetry, folklore, mysticism, and language (Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arabic, etc.), as well as science, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, jurisprudence, and theology. Even as we disentangle the legacies of these different Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures, we also look at how their intellectual legacies have long flourished in a productive, creative entanglement.

Public Policy 190FS — 9/11, Islam, and the Modern Middle East (EI, SS)

David Schanzer

David Schanzer,  Professor of the Practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy;  Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security

The attacks of September 11, 2001, were a seminal moment in modern history. They demonstrated the ability of non-state actors to inflict serious damage on the world’s greatest superpower and exposed the vulnerability of the entire global community to catastrophic acts of terrorism. This course explores the origins of this attack, the response of the United States, and the global implications of this long-term, continuous conflict. This inquiry includes discussions of the history of the modern Middle East, the rise Islamist political movements, and the ideology of violent extremist organizations such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Students will learn about the development of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, including uses of force in many Middle Eastern countries, targeted killings using armed drones, expansion of electronic communications surveillance at home and abroad, homeland security, and efforts to prevent acts of homegrown violent extremism.

Faculty Director

Ellen McLarney
Ellen McLarney
  • Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
  • Director, Duke Middle East Studies Center
2204 Erwin Road Room 226